British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery was the man who said the first three rules of warfare are “Do not invade Russia,” repeated three times. A footnote to that rule would be that while the disputed Georgian districts of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are not parts of Russia today, they were yesterday, and probably will again be tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow. Most of their present populations carry Russian passports, and there are Russian troops in both provinces.

The fourth rule of war might be, “Do not let anyone trick you into invading Russia.” Apologists for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili have claimed that the Russians prepared their riposte to the Georgian attack on South Ossetia before it happened last Friday, but misled Saakashvili into thinking an attempt to seize the disputed territory would go unopposed. However, The New York Times quotes “a senior American official” as saying, “It doesn’t look as if this was premeditated. Until the night before the fighting, Russia seemed to be playing a constructive role.”

The Russian version of the betrayal theme is that Saakashvili “was forced to start this war by Dick Cheney to support the campaign of John McCain. The only possibility for John McCain to win is to have some kind of war.”

That is the view of Sergei Markov, director of the Institute of Political Studies in Moscow, and undoubtedly it is an opinion widely held in Russia. It is at least logical. If true, it would mean that Cheney should be charged with malfeasance in public office. (But that has been proposed before.) The U.S. vice president’s actual statement after the Russian counterattack was perfectly presidential. He said the Russian attack “must not go unanswered,” and if continued would have serious consequences for Russian-American relations. This said everything and nothing at the same time.

The fifth rule ought also to be precautionary: “Don’t let your friends in Washington democracy-promoting institutes or neoconservative think tanks, or who are important American newspaper columnists or television talking heads, convince you that if you attack Russia the United States and NATO will rescue you.”

Thus a sixth rule of conduct is one of political realism, and explains rule five. It was expressed by Henry Kissinger: “Great powers do not commit suicide for allies.” (Least of all small and unimportant allies.)

Nowhere in what I have read of the comment on this small but important war has it been explained why neither Georgia nor Ukraine should belong to NATO. They carry with them ready-made wars that NATO neither can nor should be expected to deal with. They are both ethnically and culturally divided nations whose histories are of struggle between or among their component parts.

In Georgia, it is between the linguistically distinct enclaves that in the past were Russian and wish again to be Russian, and the majority of Georgians, who want to be part of the West, but are also determined to dominate their rebellious territories. If they would peacefully renounce those territories, an ethnically and culturally united Georgia would have every right to demand NATO membership. But as things are now (or were, until the last few days), Mikheil Saakashvili wants his country inside NATO to protect him from the consequences of forcing those dissident territories to remain under Georgian domination. NATO has no business doing such a thing, and as Russia supports the rebel enclaves, NATO membership for Georgia has war with Russia built into it. As we have just seen.

In Ukraine, the problem is between a culturally and historically Orthodox and Russian-speaking Ukraine, and a Westernized and Uniate Catholic Ukraine, whose ties are to Poland and Lithuania. Westernized Ukraine is trying to use NATO to help it dominate Russian Ukraine. This again has war built into it, and NATO must stay away from a conflict that is an unresolved and possibly irresolvable internal Ukrainian problem. NATO is extremely lucky that Germany and France blocked it earlier this year from offering membership to Georgia. Had they not done so, NATO today would either have threatened Russia with war this week, or its Article Five guarantee to go to the military aid of any of its members under attack would have been discredited.

Thus the seventh rule, also one of political realism, is: “Don’t give guarantees or make threats you cannot carry out.” John McCain said, “Russia should immediately and unconditionally cease its military operations and withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgia territory.” That is ultimatum talk. But if McCain were president today, just what would he have done if Russia defied him?

Barack Obama said, “Now is the time for Georgia and Russia to show restraint, and to avoid an escalation to full-scale war.” This was called “weak” by the McCain camp, but it was presidential talk. It said what the two sides should do, without committing the United States to do anything, whatever happened. It maintained a free hand for the United States.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at

© 2008 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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